Alexander Sokurov has become quite the cosmopolitan since his 2002 one-take epic Russian Ark made him an art-house star. Since then his subjects have included the American occupation of Japan and the German Faust legend, while his latest film is a sort of critical sequel to Ark, taking the Louvre museum in France. Francofonia strikes me as a sort of homage to Jean-Luc Godard in its mix of scripted scenes, essayistic narration and other meta elements, and while it's an homage to French cinema to that extent it also shows that you can take the boy out of Russia, but you can't always take Russia out of the boy. The nearest thing to a plot in the piece is the relationship between Jacques Jaujard, the French national museum director (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Franz von Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), the German official in charge of preserving occupied France's cultural heritage. Jaujard had already evacuated most of the Louvre's contents to auxiliary chataeux by the time Wolff-Metternich arrived, but as it turned out the German took his cultural preservation mandate more seriously than his Nazi masters probably intended, eventually earning the French Legion of Honor for his trouble. Their story, punctuated for some quasi-Godardian reason with a visible soundtrack, is interlarded with a Russian Ark-style tour of the Louvre, Sokurov's Skype (?) chats with someone transporting precious art by stormy sea on a freighter, and comments on the museum's history. The museum tour is reminiscent of Sokurov's earlier triumph not in its lack of editing but by the appearance of a historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte (Vincent Nemeth). He haunts the Louvre, childishly pointing out paintings of himself and explaining that much of the museum's classical collection was plundered by him from the Middle East. The museum has another resident spirit, Marianne (Johanna Korthals Altes), France's counterpart to Uncle Sam. She frolics about in her liberty cap shouting the French Revolutionary buzzwords, "liberty, equality, fraternity," but in a telling moment the tour narrator urges her to get rid of the obnoxious Napoleon after he's grasped her hand, but neither she nor we can shake the Little Corporal.
You may have recalled by now that Bonaparte was a great enemy of Russia, perhaps second only to Hitler, but it's in Sokurov's discussion of what his people call the Great Patriotic War, particularly the treatment of the Louvre and Paris compared to the treatment of Leningrad and the Hermitage museum -- the setting of Russian Ark -- that particularly Russian hurt feelings come to the surface. You get the impression that Sokurov holds it against France that Paris didn't suffer the devastation that Leningrad endured. Never mind that France had surrendered before the Germans had to consider bombing Paris, while Leningrad became a symbol of continued Russian resistance to the Nazi war machine. What really bugs Sokurov, it seems, is the idea that Paris and the Louvre were spared because on some level Germans like Wolff-Metternich saw France as part of European civilization, but didn't extend Russia the same courtesy. I suspect that Sokurov suspects that that wasn't just because of Nazi anti-communism, though that clearly had something to do with it, and to do with why he closes the film with a loud, discordant version of the Soviet national anthem. Francofonia is subtitled An Elegy for Europe, but the overall tone isn't really elegiac. It use of Napoleon links France and Germany together in a culture of imperialistic aggression against the East, in the name of a Europe defined by its exclusion of Russia. You may not like or agree with that message but at least it shows that Sokurov hasn't sold out by returning to his museum motif. This newest film isn't as good as Russian Ark or Faust, but it still proves Sokurov one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today.